At its best, football is a beautiful sport. From the Olympic speed of NFL running backs to the masterful skills of quarterbacks, the game can take your breath away.
But the sport has a monumental problem. It is a game of tackling and hitting, essential to its entertainment value. Some of those hits become blows to the brain. Catastrophic injuries, such as the fatal head trauma suffered in a game recently by Andre Smith, a player for Bogan Computer Technical High School, are rare. But concussions are prevalent and dangerous.
For too long, the NFL dismissed the hazards of head injuries. Its executives and medical staff denied that playing football could lead to permanent brain damage, defying common sense and the findings of specialists. Now league officials and teams, including the Chicago Bears, want to show they are making the game safer.
Their target audience? Moms and dads, of course. Keeping kids involved — playing the game and loving it — is crucial to the NFL’s future bottom line.
The NFL, we have no doubt, also hopes to get out in front of the potential fallout from a soon-to-be-released movie, “Concussion,” starring Will Smith, about a neuropathologist credited with finding chronic traumatic encephalopathy in deceased football players.
The stakes for the league are huge. Football has good reason to fear going the way of boxing, a once beloved sport that lost its mainstream popularity.
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Bears Chairman George H. McCaskey, as well as an NFL senior vice president and an independent neuropsychologist, shared with us last week important changes to the game in recent years that have brought a drop in concussions. Medical timeouts are called at the discretion of a medical trainer monitoring games from a stadium box. The kickoff line was moved to the 35-yard line from the 30 to make returns safer, and rules to protect “defenseless” players were expanded.
Every fan should welcome the changes, but the NFL would be smart to do more. We see no reason, for example, why the league cannot take a firm stand on the appropriate age for a child to begin playing tackle football.
“Ours is the greatest game,” McCaskey told us. “The combination of speed, finesse, strategy, teamwork. You’ll see it in a 60-minute game. I don’t want to get too dramatic but (there are) metaphors for life: Picking yourself up when you get knocked down, never giving up.”
But much the same can be said about other team sports.
And kids will turn to those other sports if their parents lose faith in the safety of football.